Heavy Hitters Take on the Common Core, Sort of…

What is a conservative to think? Are the Common Core Learning Standards a threat? A blessing? As we’ve discussed recently in these pages, some conservative intellectuals have argued that the standards are a triumph of conservative activism. But tonight, the Family Research Council hosts a star-studded slamfest to explain all the reasons why conservatives should fight the standards. Yet it seems to me that this group will conspicuously leave out some of the most obvious reasons for conservatives to oppose the new standards.

They Are Coming for Conservatives' Children...

They Are Coming for Conservatives’ Children…

What’s the FRC’s beef with the standards? The name of tonight’s event says it all: “Common Core: The Government’s Classroom.” As have other leading conservatives including Phyllis Schlafly, Glenn Beck, conservative Catholics, and libertarians such as JD Tuccille, the heavyweights at tonight’s event will likely condemn the standards as another example of leftist government overreach.

For tonight’s roundtable, the FRC has assembled folks such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and University of Arkansas scholar Sandra Stotsky. Governor Jindal has taken the lead among conservative state leaders with his endless legal wrangling over the new standards. Professor Stotsky has become the academic leader of the antis. Her work with the standards’ development left her convinced that the Common Core was rotten. As Stotsky argued in a video jeremiad produced by the anti-Core Home School Legal Defense Association, the intellectual weakness of the standards presents as much of a threat as does the sneaky way they were introduced.

What is a conservative to think about the Common Core? Tonight’s video roundtable apparently hopes to convince more conservatives to fight it.

It will raise key questions about conservatism and educational politics. For example, from time to time, the anti-Core fight is tied to anti-evolution. As we noted a while back, Ohio’s now-defunct House Bill 597 pushed IN creationism as it pushed OUT the Common Core.

To this observer, it seems natural for conservatives to use the political muscle of creationism to fight against the Common Core. In some cases, conservatives have done just that, since the Next Generation Science Standards would likely push for more evolution and less creationism in America’s classrooms.

But this FRC event doesn’t mention evolution or creation. It doesn’t mention literature, history, or math, either, for that matter. Instead, the focus of tonight’s event seems to be on the federal-izing dangers inherent in the new standards.

But why not? Why wouldn’t the Family Research Council want to use every intellectual weapon at its disposal to discredit the standards in conservatives’ eyes? Maybe they will, of course.  The different panelists might emphasize different aspects of the standards.  One or some certainly might note the connection between evolution education and centralized power.  I’d love to watch and find out.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to. If anyone has the time tonight to spend with this all-star conservative panel, I’d love to hear your thoughts…


Evolution: Beyond Science and Religion

Outsiders are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship Almighty God.  Instead, this fascist method teaches that our children are the property of the state.

–Matt Singleton, Frankfort, Kentucky, July 2013

Why do so many Americans oppose the teaching of evolution in schools?

The knee-jerk answer is that people fight against mainstream science for religious reasons.

A news story out of Kentucky reminds us that we need to say, “Yes, but…”

Opposition to evolution education in the United States incorporates ideas about religion and science, but we can’t stop there.  If we hope to understand creationism, we need to unpick the tangled skein of ideas that can make up anti-evolution ideology.

This is something that science pundits such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne seem unwilling to acknowledge.  America does not face a clear-cut battle between “Science” and “Religion,” between “Knowledge” and “Ignorance,” but a much more stubborn conflict between convoluted collections of ideas, ideas that have grown together over time.  Some science advocates limit themselves to berating creationists for ignorance of evolution, to ridiculing creationists for reactionary adherence to religion.  Such attacks may satisfy our sympathizers, but by willfully mischaracterizing anti-evolutionism, these pro-“science” bloggers only compound the difficulties of healing culture-war divisions.

And those divisions are indeed more complex than activists on either side tend to admit.

Case in point: a notice recently in the Huffington Post drew our attention to this story from Kentucky’s Courier-Journal.  Reporter Mike Wynn described a public meeting over Kentucky’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards.  As Wynn reports, opponents of evolution offered comments to the state board of education.  Those comments offer a window into the complicated thinking of anti-evolution activists.

Matt Singleton, for instance, read a statement to the board describing his opposition to the new evolution-friendly science standards.

“Outsiders,” Singleton read,

Are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship Almighty God.  Instead, this fascist method teaches that our children are the property of the state.

As I argued in my 1920s book, anti-evolution activists have always made this sort of intellectual scattershot attack on evolution.  This kind of anti-evolutionism can’t be reduced to merely a theological or scientific argument.  If we hope to understand it, we need to understand the broad intellectual and cultural implications of the argument.  If we want to make sense of it, we must see it for what it is: an “anti-evolution” argument that moves far beyond the boundaries of religion or science.

Some evolution proponents might dismiss The Reverend Singleton’s rant as merely ignorant.  I admit, my first response when someone howls about “outsiders” and “fascist[s]” is to assume we have reached the territory of sea-monsters and sandwich-sign prophets.

But that sort of glib dismissal misses the point.  It does not help us understand why this bundle of anti-evolution ideas remains so politically potent.  Whatever we may think of the connections Singleton makes between region, religion, and rights, those connections make sense to significant numbers of Americans.  It is worth our time to try to understand them.

As a start, let’s try to list all the different reasons for opposing mainstream science education that Singleton packs into this paragraph.

1.) Evolution comes from somewhere else.  (“Outsiders”)

1a.) As an import, evolution is illegitimate.

2.) Evolution is for the rich. (“rich man’s . . . elitist”)

2a.) This elitism calls for popular opposition.

3.) Evolution is a religion. (“religion of evolution”)

3a.) As a religion, it can’t be taught in public schools.

4.) Evolution destroys traditional Baptist religion. (“we no longer have . . . the right to worship Almighty God.”)

4a.) As an attack on religion, it can’t be taught in public schools.

5.) Traditional religion is a Constitutional right. (“the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship”)

6.) Evolution is dictatorial. (“fascist method”)

7.) Evolution imposes illegitimate government control over children. (“teaches that our children are property of the state.”)

The Reverend Singleton does not want Kentucky schoolchildren to learn evolution.  But we woefully misunderstand his anti-evolutionism if we simply label him an opponent of “science” and move on.  We also miss the boat if we say too simply that Singleton’s opposition is due to “religious” reasons.  Singleton’s fight against evolution combines a complex bundle of ideas.  That bundle implies certain attitudes toward science and religion.  But it is misleading to say that Singleton is motivated only by “anti-science” attitudes.  Nowhere in his statement—at least in the part published by the Courier-Journal—does Singleton attack science.  And nowhere does Singleton argue that true Biblical faith demands belief in six literal days of creation.

In the American context, we might assume that Singleton believes such things.  But his political argument here includes a much broader bundle of ideas and slogans.

Anyone who hopes to improve evolution education in the United States must start by understanding the complexity of that bundle.  It is not enough to dismiss such arguments as “ignorant” or “irrelevant.”  They make sense to people such as The Reverend Singleton.  They also make sense to the politically powerful voting populace who continue to support the teaching of creationism in America’s science classrooms.




Common Core + Climate Change Science = Progressive Beer Bong

Solve the equation for X.

Many conservative educational activists are up in arms about the new Common Core State Standards.  Today we read a new articulation of this conservative hostility from Iowa State Representative Ralph Watts.

Watts called the Next Generation Science Standards—the science branch of the Common Core—a “beer bong for American education.”  For those whose college education did not include the arts and sciences of beer bongs, the Honorable Representative Watts meant to imply that these standards will deliver ideas quickly enough to overwhelm students’ ability to digest them.  In his words, the new standards constitute “a vehicle for progressive activists to spread their philosophies and propaganda to our children through a conduit designed very effectively to serve their needs.”

Next Generation Science Standards, Watts warns, insist that human-caused climate change is a fact.  This is another episode of federal overreach, Watts insists.  “Centralization. . . .” Watts concludes, will be a “colossal mistake and a classic failure.”

In the field of science education, Watts has a point.  Local control often protects the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, for example.  The same could be true for climate-change skepticism.  Putting mainstream scientists in charge of more rigorous science standards can’t hurt.  But I worry that it also won’t help too much.

In spite of Representative Watts’ poignant words, there are no true beer bongs in American education.  There is no way for any central body to deliver ideology so overwhelmingly to students nationwide as to overwhelm their home culture’s beliefs.

Will It Matter?

The New York Times reports that new state science standards endorse more rigorous teaching of climate change and evolution. According to one conservative group consulted by the Times, the new standards will disregard creationists’ rights, will “classify them as outsiders within the community.”

But will they?

Happily for religious conservatives, and unhappily for those like me who support more rigorous evolution education, these standards will not make much impact on the ways evolution is actually taught.

Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued convincingly that state standards have “only minimal impact” on what goes on in science classrooms.[1]  The decisions made at the state level are not nearly as important as the daily decisions made by teachers.

Similarly, science educator Randy Moore has noted that state standards “often mean little in biology classrooms.”[2]

So will these new standards fulfill the hopes of science educators or the fears of religious conservatives?  Likely not.  That does not mean that such standards are useless.  The political process of crafting and wording state education standards can make a significant symbolic statement about the cultural and intellectual values of a community.

However, in terms of transforming teaching on a day-to-day level, these new suggested standards will not likely have the impact journalists suggest.  As long as local communities feel ambivalent about evolution education, teachers will largely avoid the topic.


[1] Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 160.

[2] Randy A. Moore.  2002. “Teaching Evolution: Do State Standards Matter?” BioScience 52 (4) 380.